Extreme rhetoric can inspire extreme behavior, even violence. But there isn’t a shred of evidence that anything that anyone on the political right—or left—said or wrote inspired Jared Lee Loughner to launch his deadly rampage in Arizona.
Within hours of the shooting, before the blood had been washed off the Tucson sidewalk, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman was claiming that “McCain-Palin rallies” in 2008 and unspecified comments made by “the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly” incited the massacre.
Former Florida congressman Alan Grayson claimed that a map on Sarah Palin’s website, with target symbols over various election districts, was what caused the bloodshed in Arizona. He and other blame-meisters on the left also have pointed accusing fingers at the Tea Parties, Fox News, and a laundry list of people and parties to the right.
There is much irony in Grayson’s prominence among the blamers, as not long ago he charged that “Fox News and its Republican collaborators” are “enemies of America.”
The point is not merely that Grayson or some of the others trying to make political hay of Tucson are hypocrites. The point is that normally responsible people on both the right and left are occasionally careless in their rhetoric. Overheated political commentary is dismaying. (My least favorite violation being bogus Hitler/Holocaust analogies.) But that doesn’t mean it causes mass murder.
For rhetoric to translate into violence, two ingredients are necessary.
The first is the content of the rhetoric. Instead of using catch-all phrases such as “climate of hate” or “atmosphere of incitement,” take a look at the actual words. Neither Palin nor O’Reilly—not Krugman nor Grayson—have ever called for violence; in fact they all repeatedly renounce it.
By contrast, note that prominent voices in Muslim and Arab countries do explicitly call for the murder of Israelis, Americans and other “infidels.” When leaders actually call for murder, it often leads to murder. Making some vague disparaging remark about one’s political rival is not in the same category as actual calls for murder.
The second deadly ingredient derives from the source of the rhetoric. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas calls on his followers “to take up arms,” or imams in PA mosques urge their adherents to “slaughter the Jews,” that clearly is having an impact on their followers.
By contrast, no responsible American political or religious leaders say such things. Even when then-candidate Barack Obama told a Philadelphia campaign rally in June 2008, “if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” no reasonable person could have taken that as a literal call to arms.
Only a tiny extreme fringe, on the radical left and the radical right, uses the language of violence. Our civilized society rejects such rhetoric. It’s considered beyond the pale. That’s one reason why political violence is so rare in American life, thank God.
In Arab and Muslim countries, by contrast, violence against political and religious enemies is, tragically, endemic. Witness last week’s assassination in Pakistan of a leading figure in the largely secular Pakistani ruling coalition, murdered for defending a minority Christian woman against trumped-up charges of blasphemy. Governments and religious leaders set the tone for this normalization of violence.
The Palestinian Authority, for example, names schools and streets after terrorists. It calls them “heroes” and “martyrs.” It provides financial assistance to their families. Its religious authorities promise them virgins in the afterlife if they murder Jews on their way out. Nothing in American society is remotely comparable.
So don’t blame Sarah Palin and the Tea Parties if some deranged individual shoots a Democrat, and don’t blame Alan Grayson if some nut, God forbid, would shoot a Republican. But yes, do blame the leaders who repeatedly glorify, encourage and incite bloodshed against innocents.
(Benyamin Korn, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, is the director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin and JewsForSarah.com.)